Montréal play #6: BALCONVILLE by David Fennario

I arrived in Montréal for the ATHE conference late last night and was able this morning to walk around and get a sense of the neighborhood. I’ve spent some of my career in Pittsburgh and there were aspects to the downtown that felt like a working-class, post-industrialized neighborhood. I am hoping to explore the city more today, but I sense that like Pittsburgh, gentrification has taken over major sections of the city and there are few remnants of the industrial past in this post-industrial age. It reminded me of when I was literary manager in Pittsburgh, I worked on a series of new plays by resident playwright Rob Zellers about the characters struggling with the steel mills closing in Youngstown, Ohio.

So when I sat down to read David Fennario’s Balconville, while I was at first a bit intimidated by this bilingual play, I immediately recognized the neighborhood. Even though I couldn’t read the French sections of the play, it was easy to intuit the world of the play—the factories are moving to Taiwan, unemployment is high (40%), and there’s a yearning for either the past or some ways and means to escape. Premiering at the Centaur Theatre (where we will start our day tomorrow) in 1979, it’s written in the moment where industry is quickly discarding many cities across the rust belt, leaving the immigrant populations who first settled in the industrial slums to work in the factories stranded.

Point Saint-Charles, Montreal (1967) Gabor Szilasi

Point Saint-Charles, Montreal (1967) Gabor Szilasi

As we’re exploring the dramaturgical role of place on these Montréal plays, this is a clear example of a play where the neighborhood of Pointe Saint-Charles is the protagonist. According to the Centre for Oral History and Digital Storytelling’s project: “From Balconville to Condoville: The Politics of Urban Change in Post-Industrial Montreal”, this neighborhood in particular rallied to inspire activism and resistance.  That’s certainly clear in Balconville, where neighbors are trying to encourage each other to battle unemployment by attending a series of political action meetings. And it’s a neighborhood that has bonded together by their tough economic circumstances, as they sing proudly and drunkenly at the top of Act Two:

“We don’t care about

All the rest of Canada,

All the rest of Canada,

All the rest of Canada,

We don’t care for

All the rest of Canada,

We’re from Pointe Saint-Charles.”

The set design for this play is clearly theatrical, as neighbors argue from balcony to balcony. The walls are thin here, everyone knows each other’s business. There’s also a sense of foreboding as they talk about the fires threatening other nearby neighborhoods. At the end of the play, the audience watches the neighbors create a relay system to rescue their belongings from going up in flames. As much as they are trying to rally together and resist the forces pushing them down, there’s not much optimism that this neighborhood will ever be the same.

A moment that drew me immediately into the play was a bit of business over a broken step. Thibault, a neighborhood delivery guy who has the misfortune to have a bike with a flat tire, delivers beer to the neighborhood men but keeps tripping over a broken step leading up to the balcony apartments. Claude Paquette, who loses his factory job in Act Two, has put up a sign that warns “Prenez garde.” What first appears to be a comic bit of business becomes the warning for the whole neighbor to “Watch their steps.”  Yet, Thibault also replies simply after he trips:

“Sure. I remember everything. Everything. Everybody forgets but me. I don’t. It’s funny, that, eh?”

As we explore the conference theme of remembering, it’s clear that like many American cities devastated by de-industrialization and later gentrification, the only thing these neighbors have left is their ability to remember the past. They sing pop songs and dance to Elvis. They do their best to recreate what the neighborhood was like in their youth, when at least they had jobs. There is both joy and sorry in remembering, because focusing on the present has no options or choices open to them for survival. Even when Tom Williams tries to escape to a better life in New York City, he is stopped at the border and sent back. There’s no other choice then to try to take some comfort from the past, since their future is “Apocalypse Now.”

At the time of its premiere, playwright David Fennario received the Floyd S. Chalmers Canadian Play Award in 1980 and resonated immediately with audiences, receiving favorable reviews. As we discuss these plays during ATHE, one of the many questions we should raise is if this play from across the border and written in a specific moment in the process of de-industrialization will resonate with our current generation of students.—H.H., dramaturg

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Montréal play #5: AN ANGLOPHONE IS COMING TO DINNER by George Rideout

Like Alison, I have had a hard time posting regularly and I recognize I will most likely be short of my goal of reading 30 plays before our ATHE conference in Montréal next week. Even though it was an ambitious goal to set in a summer where I’m happily employed on many time-intensive projects, it’s still worth the effort to continue the discourse right up to the bell. So onto play number five and we’ll see how many more chapters I can write before the conference begins.

This summer, I have been employed to dramaturg two new plays for PlayPenn, the new play development conference in my home city. To date, it’s been rare that I get to work at home and on the SEPTA train rides back and forth to work, I’ve had the opportunity to reflect on what it means to be working at home. I actually have the time now to build stronger friendships with artists I’ve admired around the city for years. I’ve also had the chance to host playwrights visiting my city, welcoming them into my home; the backstage of my life. Perhaps you are someone who regularly hosts friends for dinner but I don’t. During the year, my travel schedule barely affords this pleasure. So, picking up the comic play An Anglophone is Coming to Dinner, it’s been a reminder that a simple event like hosting a dinner can speak volumes about character—and this play uses the situation to the fullest to make a statement about the referendum for an independent Québec.

When I first read the synopsis for this play, I couldn’t stop laughing at the premise. A Lubbock, Texas community theatre has commissioned a translation of sorts of a new Canadian play and then performs that play in a Texas-sized way in English for a Montréal audience—so the French characters speak with a Texas twang and when they speak to their guest L’Anglophone they speak in French—hilarious as well as subversive. Also, the playwright George Rideout, born in Texas before moving to Québec, takes full advantage of how the Texas culture likes to identify as its own separate country as the Lubbock community theatre plays Montréal characters who are serious about the historical moment of the referendum. What seems to be such a silly premise has a way of opening a deeper conversation. As L’Anglophone guest says late into the dinner party:

“It’s funny, I felt the same way during the referendum when I thought our country was going to be torn apart. ‘Separation,’ it’s such a hurtful word.” (Rideout, pg. 58)

And at the same time, the play drips with irony when Junior, the son in the family and the representative of the younger generation refusing to accept the political compromises and still fighting for a separation from English culture, drops out of the family’s attempt to speak to the Anglophone in French to argue in English, “I’m a citizen of the country of Québec. My flag is the Fleur-de-Lys and my language is French.” (pg. 70). It’s a big risk for the Francophones to share their home, the backstage of their lives, with their enemy the Anglophone, someone they’d much rather kick out of their country. There are many American farcical plays that we see on summer stages that are built too big to fail and easily get the audience laughing, so many companies turn to them time and time again. You know which ones I mean—the Neil Simon plays, Noises Off, Lend Me a Tenor, and the list goes on. Doors slamming, characters find themselves in compromising positions with strangers or trapped somewhere in their underwear. But in this play, instead of slamming doors and mistaken identities, we receive the humor made popular by Christopher Guest mockumentaries like Waiting for Guffman. Jim Bob is the director of the Lubbock community theatre performing this play for us. He explains his love of Canadian theatre and why a Francophone family is awkwardly hosting L’Anglophone (whose name is London) for their dinner.

I'm sure Jell-o is even funnier shaped like a Canadian flag.

I’m sure Jell-o is even funnier shaped like a Canadian flag. Or the state of Texas.

In Jim Bob’s direct addresses the audience, he describes how difficult it is to speak in French (‘just like riding a buckin’ bronco’) and warns us that the ending is rather strange for a comedy. And it is—the grandmother sabotages the appropriate dessert and serves L’Anglophone her specialty: a JELL-O Man configured to resemble the Canadian flag. L’Anglophone turns out to be delighted and the cultures are brought together, symbolically, over JELL-O. Director Jim Bob shrugs that he doesn’t get it:

“…dessert is clearly a big symbol of somethin’ and I figure we’d better leave it in. When we were doin’ the play in Texas sometimes I’d get the feelin’ that there were things goin’ on that I was missin’, that the characters knew something that I didn’t.”

Yet, even though I’m still just getting to know Montréal playwriting and culture, George Rideout’s play always lets me in on the jokes. The writer doesn’t leave me behind. The agendas of all the characters are extremely clear and the humor helped me understand the dicey situation this Francophone family is in hosting an Anglophone. I can sense the immediate condescension the Francophone family feels once L’Anglophone steps into their home. I’d much rather see this comedy, which uses language so ironically, then the typical farces that grace our summer stages. If I had more time, I would have laid out a little more clearly how each character represents a specific point of view about the desire to live in an independent Québec. However, I also want to mention that this play is also poking fun at the theatricality particular to Québécois theatre. When L’Anglophone makes his first appearance in the play, it’s in a heightened, non-realistic sequence where he’s wearing a full theatrical, cartoonish mask while ‘a faint, Philip Glass-like version of ‘O Canada’ can be heard.’ If that’s not a reason why you should add this play to your summer reading list, I don’t know what else I can say to convince you to give Québécois theatre a try, because I find it highly enjoyable and insightful.—H.H., dramaturg P.S. When I mentioned I was reading a play with the above stage direction, a colleague referred me to this Philip Glass composition. For your enjoyment: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MvC9em5j2Y0

On Montréal Play #4…and “What gets lost in the dark green forests of translation”

Montréal Play #4—The Magnificent Voyage of Emily Carr by Jovette Marchessault, translated by Linda Gaboriau.

SOPHIE: I’m not an artist like my friend Em’ly—inside her tunnel, she opens doors to bring us closer.

LIZZIE: Bring us closer to what? To whom?

SOPHIE: To the light! To each other! To the last door.

This was the kind of play I was hoping to find through this exercise of reading prior to attending the ATHE Conference in Montréal! I am sort of skipping ahead to 1990 with The Magnificent Voyage of Emily Carr by Jovette Marchessault and not following a linear approach to my reading through this list of plays. But I couldn’t help myself when I saw the list of four characters—a female artist, her sister, her Native American ‘friend’, and a mystical Soul Tuner. Just that mix of characters seemed appropriate for our pre-conference discourse. Perhaps I was also eager because when I think of the plays that are written about the biography of a major artist, I can only think of plays featuring male artists. (Please feel free to correct me if you can think of an American play with a female artist as protagonist!)

The Montréal playwright, Jovette Marchessault, is also an important pioneer of lesbian and feminist literature (perhaps the recent Tony win of Fun Home is also on my mind). So this seemed the next appropriate play to dive into, as we have Emily, of British heritage, appropriating Native American art into her work. She struggles with the reception of her paintings during her lifetime for daring to be a female artist who was focused on depicting native themes and symbols. It also didn’t hurt that this play received the Governor General’s Award from the Canada Council for the Arts in 1990, so I was more than curious.

I was not disappointed. However, as I mentioned in the prior blog on Bouchard’s Lilies, it was also translated by Linda Gaboriau. My first impression of the dialogue was that it was highly poetic and symbolic and I had a hunch that this play, originally Québécois, was probably written that way to capture that the artist Emily Carr was one of the first painters in Canada to adopt a Modernist and Post-Impressionist painting style. So, I accepted the strange linguist twists and turns and moved on.  Apparently, this poetic style was a major challenge for the translator.

In Agnes Whitfield’s book Writing Between the Lines: Portraits of Canadian Anglophone Translators, Linda Gaboriau recounts that translating The Magnificent Voyage of Emily Carr made her squirm while watching the production. In attempting to keep the lyrical and philosophical riffs that the main character of Emily Carr has on her paintings, the Anglophone actors who were trained in psychological realism struggled with the style in performance. According to Gaboriau, which may be interesting for us to keep in mind as we explore the landscape of Montréal theatre, “actors in English-Canadian theatre are not comfortable with flights of language, with poetry, or lyrical, rhetorical material…which are precisely the elements which have been most characteristic of Quebec theatre during the last two decades…” (Whitfield, pg. 293)

389px-Emily_Carr_1928_Kitwancool

Emily Carr, Kitwancool, 1928

Well, we are deep into the dark green forests of translation issues now! And I haven’t even gotten into the issues of the play itself.

So why green forests? Since the 2010 Tony Award went to John Logan’s play Red on the artist Rothko, I got a bit of a chuckle that this play, written twenty years early, begins with a female artist standing before a totem of the Canadian First Nation goddess D’Sonoqua pondering “Is this green possible?” Green, a major color featured in Emily Carr’s paintings, becomes a throughline for this play as Emily struggles with her art. Later, the goddess D’Sonoqua responds to Emily:

“They all fled past the totem poles, the living men and women of the ill-fated human family. We still stand here with our vacant eyes…Who will accomplish the task of remembering? Who will remind us that these lives were not lived in vain?”

Throughout this green play, Emily Carr is burdened with this question of how her art can help this task of remembering.

Unlike many biographical plays, this isn’t a straight-forward historical approach to depicting the life of Emily Carr. The playwright has done her job in selecting moments that are highly theatrical and provocative and the main conflicts in the play are the three women, represented by Emily Carr, the artist, her traditional sister Lizzie, and her First Nation friend Sophie (who also doubles as the goddess D’Sonoqua).

The male world in this play, represented by the Soul Tuner, feels to me very much a secondary character. There’s a tense moments when Emily is invited to present her work back east in Ottawa, but the letter is addressed to “Mr. Emile Carr” as the art world assumes that a woman from the wilds of Western Canada could not possibly be sophisticated enough. The one kind male in the play, the artist Lawren Harris of the Group of Seven, does welcome her and recognize her talents. Still, for the most part, Emily exclaims in frustration that the men evaluating her work are “All so incredibly paternalistic!” (pg. 96). But other than this event with Harris, this is not a play where I’m getting a straightforward biography of her life. The focus is on her relationship to her sister Lizzie, her friend Sophie, and her philosophical struggles with being a female artist in a remote corner of the world.

While Emily Carr recognizes that the Group of Seven is setting out to revolutionize art in Canada, the play argues that Emily Carr is actually the artist doing it through her struggle to preserve what’s left of the First Nation culture in the region of Victoria, Canada. But of course, as the Soul Tuner helps her see, what’s done through good intentions is also a hard, complicated task. I hope I’ve given you enough a sense of this play that there are a myriad of issues of country, isolation, and assimilation that we could discuss with this play alone. I feel like I could get lost in Emily Carr’s green forest myself for days, but I’ll leave this play with its haunting symbols, like the fiery kiln that the Soul Tuner appears and disappears out of, for now, and keep reading through this great list of  Montréal plays, hoping to circle back to this play at some point.

Oh, and did I mention that one of the characters runs on, claiming she has seen an elephant? I hope I’m not missing any elephants in the room regarding this play.

Montréal play #3—LILIES by Michel Marc Bouchard

“When you learn a new language, you gain a new soul.”—traditional Georgian saying

I realized as I was reading the next two plays (Lilies by Michel Marc Bouchard and The Magnificent Voyage of Emily Carr by Jovette Marchessault) that they were both translated by the same person: Linda Gaboriau. As the PACT pre-conference tackles conversations about country, isolation, and assimilation, I am hoping there will be some translators among us who can respond to the difficult issues of translating contemporary plays. While I have not yet reached out to Linda Gaboriau, a quick search of her biography mentions that she has been translating over one hundred Montréal plays since 1963. While Lilies is the first translation of hers that I have read for this project, I’m sure to encounter her work again.

I hope that this dialogue on the PACT blog for the Montréal Dramaturgy Project continues (and I’m sure dramaturg Alison Bowie will address in her blog posts), I’ll become more enlightened about the problems of translation specific to Montréal. I checked out Louise Ladouceur’s book Dramatic Licence: Translating Theatre from One Official Language to the Other in Canada (which is also a translation by Richard Lebeau!). I’m only beginning to work through it, but the basics I’ve gathered is that prior to 1960, there were very few works of literature shared between Francophone and Anglophone cultures, but between 1960-1977 there were a burst of translations, mainly from Francophone to Anglophone, as the Québécois theatres were writing new plays addressing issues of identity, while Anglophone theatres stuck to a more classical theatre repertoire. I may be generalizing a bit, but it certainly makes sense that there would be more of a motivation for the Québécois theatre community to create new work to address the shifting politics of The Quiet Revolution and a need to tell those stories. By 1972, the need for translations were supported by Canada’s Council Grant Program for Literary Translation, but it seems that the focus of the grant program funded translations from one official language to another, so where did this leave created work written in the language of the First Nation peoples? Or other immigrant communities present in Montréal wanting to see themselves reflected on stage?

image17-Saguenay-Lac-Saint-Jean-3EN

Lac Saint-Jean image from a tourist website.

But back to Lilies by Michel Marc Bouchard, first performed in 1987 at Salle Fred-Barry in Montréal, but a period piece set in a small village along the Lac Saint-Jean, Quebec in 1912. Two young men come of age at the Saint Sebastian School for Boys and are directed in a school play by Father Saint-Michel, who is shocking the community with his progressive plays. As the play begins, Vallier and Simon, the two handsome youths, are falling passionately in love, but their classmate Jean Bilodeau calls them out. To escape pressure from the community, Simon fakes a relationship with the 30-something Frenchwoman Mademoiselle Lydie-Anne de Rozier, who is also an expert liar. But what Michel Marc Bouchard executes so well is that the play is framed by a play-within-a-play device where in 1952, Simon has been in prison and he presents a play to his former classmate Bilodeau, who is now a bishop, to implicate Bilodeau for his role in victimizing Simon. By using so many theatrical frames—there’s the play Simon is presenting for Bishop Bilodeau and the school play about Saint Sebastian Father Saint-Michel wants to put on for the Quebec village community—it’s extremely clear that characters from 1912 are living in a world where everyone has to play their parts. When Simon and Vallier refuse to play their roles within the straight community, they’re headed for a tragic ending. This is certainly a play that should be included in a classroom discussing works of LGBT theatre history, especially since it capitalizes on layers of theatricality to dramatize the isolation of these two young lovers in a fishing village in Quebec.

Another tourist view of the Lac Saint-Jean. Romantic setting for a play, yes?

Another tourist view of the Lac Saint-Jean. Romantic setting for a play, yes?

This is also the first play I’ve read so far where the First Nation community is somewhat present. I say somewhat because they are constant referenced as “Indians” but never seen on stage. One of the two lovers, Vallier, is the son of an aging Countess de Tilly who is holding on to a false hope that her husband will one day return from Paris to reunite them and take them back to civilization in Europe. In her disillusionment, she calls Lac Saint-Jean “the Mediterranean” and chastises her son for working when he is a nobleman with claims to the Bourbon line. Vallier is more practical of his situation, working as a tour guide alongside the First Nation peoples. Vallier earns the nickname as “Lily-White” as he rolls up his sleeves and works with the native peoples on the lake instead of relying on his heritage to support him. Unlike his mother, he’s not waiting for his father to return and save them from poverty. And As Vallier “Lily-White” de Tilly decides to pursue his love for Simon, he decides to strangle his mother on a hunting-trip and bury her alive just as she’s got her suitcases packed to return to France. Metaphor, anyone?

This is such an important play in the Quebec canon, as it uses the traditional cloak of a period play to address contemporary issues of homosexual identity, I would hope members of the PACT/ATHE community have encountered it before—if not, please come join us for this pre-conference event in Montréal or follow along with this blog. Please feel free to comment, because I’m sure in this blog-writing form I’ve left out an important issue that this work addresses. For myself, it made me think of  university productions of Tony Kushner’s The Illusion that I’ve seen recently and if your students have recently worked on The Illusion, I would hope that you could recommend that they also read Michel Marc Bouchard’s Lilies.

—H.H., dramaturg

Montréal Play #2—THE CHARGE OF THE EXPORMIDABLE MOOSE by Claude Gauvreau

First of all, when I read Claude Gauvreau’s play The Charge of the Expormidable Moose, I couldn’t help but think about the late Robin Williams in the role of Mycroft Mixeudeim. No other actor better represents the tension between laughter and the dark personal pain that is portrayed in this avante-garde play written in 1956.

As I read these Montreal plays this summer, the temptation for me is to read everything through the lens of ‘dramaturging place.’ I have this hypothesis, I want to test it through this blogging exercise, and then interpret it to fit nicely into my point of view. Claude Gauvreau’s play, however, demands that it should be taken on its own terms. I have to throw all my preconceptions out the window—probably this is for the best. I can understand why Erin Hurley of McGill University shared that she opens her Québec theatre course with it every year “just to blow the students’ minds.” If you’re looking for some mind-blowing plays to read this summer, I’d check this one out. It did take me a while to work through it as I was busy dramaturging at Great Plains Theatre Conference, as every time I sat down to read it, I would want to get sucked down into the vortex of this play, but then get pulled away. The play demands that one takes a journey down the vortex.

In the English translation I read by Ray Ellenwood, there was a note contextualizing this play and I’ll share with you a few details that were helpful for my understanding. Claude Gauvreau was a Montreal poet who was part of the avante-garde Automatist movement. When he wrote this play in 1956, his beloved muse the actress Muriel Guilbault had committed suicide, sending Claude into a series of battles with mental depression and anxiety, leading him to become hospitalized. In the institution, he felt victimized like his protagonist Mycroft Mixeudiem.

During his lifetime, this play of his was not well-received or understood. Thanks to this Translator’s Note, I have a clear picture in my mind of the 1970 first production of the play with “sixteen people in the audience and, after intermission, four of the eight actors refused to continue the performance.” But after the death of the playwright in 1971, it received a series of popular revivals that resonated with Québec audiences, in particular the Theatre du Nouveau Monde’s 1974 production, followed by the Theatre de Quat’Sous production in 1989, and even a televised production of the play. I’m sure as my fellow dramaturg contributor to this blog Alison Bowie will illuminate, whatever happened historically in Quebec after the playwright’s death in 1971 and 1974 when this play was heartily embraced, the mood had shifted like the protagonist Mycroft Mixeudeim shifts to a different course meal. Suddenly, it seems, Quebecois theatre was hungry for the dish of theatrical truth Claude Gauvreau wanted to serve them.

Also according to the translator Ray Ellenwood, Gauvreau did not want his play to have a broader, social context, as he was writing while receiving the intense psychological treatments of his day. But there are certainly many lines that strike my ear as resonating with meaning, such as the sadistic torturer Letasse-Cromagnon’s insistence that Mycroft Mixeudeim “has no rights” and therefore deserves this treatment. And when Mycroft Mixeudiem is on the brink of death, he has a moment of clarity:

            “We must exhibit acts of such complete audacity, even those who suppress them will have to admit that an inch of freedom has been won for the whole world.” (pg. 146)

But on the other hand, Mycroft Mixeudiem is being tortured because he’s a poet and a so-called masochist. In the first three acts, a small group of torturers led him through a series of false alarms as he runs to the rescue of a supposed damsel in distress. The theatricality of this play is fantastic. There are five doors, one of which is massively larger than the others. The torturers put Mycroft through a series of tests that have him charging through the doors like a moose because of his skill of head-butting the doors with an unusual show of strength. There are also moments of shadow-play and puppetry behind the doors so that the torturers are always manipulating the space to trick Mycroft into believing something dangerous is happening on the other side of the door.

Yet it takes the true sadistic character of Latasse Cromanin, who only enters the play in Act Four, to finally wear Mycroft Mixeudiem down. It might be overly simplistic to say that the plot of the play is a bit like ‘the boy who cried wolf’ where the torturers keep crying wolf and then when Mycroft really needs to come to the rescue, he’s so desensitized to these games that he allows Latasse Cromagnon to murder the one (mostly) innocent girl in this place. Because we’re in this highly metaphorical, abstract world, it’s hard not to want to unpack every symbol in this play as a sign of a culture feeling extremely alienated and a part of someone else’s sadistic experiment.

If you have a chance to read this one, or if you know it already, I would definitely appreciate your comments. There’s a lot to discuss with this play.

Finally, I would recommend that as a theatre educator, if you teach a class with Caryl Churchill’s Top Girls, Marie Irene Fornes’ Fefu and Her Friends and Martin McDonagh’s The Pillowman on your syllabus, to consider adding it to your classroom discourse, as it might pair well with those plays. I also took note that Act Two has a dinner table scene that would be a great exercise for undergraduate actors. In this scene the protagonist’s food is drugged four times, leading to four mood swings that emotionally disconnects the protagonist from his grief over his dead lover, the daughter of Ebenezer Mopp. Even without the cultural context, this way this scene dramatizes depression & grief provides an actor with a unique tour de force scene, which is why my first impression of it was to imagine the late Robin Williams in the role.—H.H., dramaturg

Montréal Play #1—REMEMBER ME by Michel Tremblay

“I don’t know why the past always smells so good.”

O Tremblay!

How did I miss reading his work in my expensive theatre history education? If you have never read Les belles-souers, the play that birthed Québécois theatre on 28 August 1968, I would encourage you to do so before you cross the border. Just this play alone is worth your time.

McGill professor Erin Hurley has a whole chapter of her book National Performance: Representing Quebec from Expo 67 to Celine Dion dedicated to Tremblay’s Les belles-soeurs. Her chapter is also worth reading as we proceed with conversations about identity and political.

I’ll give you one more reason as educators to run out and read Les belles-souers right now. The number one question I get asked is “Do you know any plays with a large casts and roles for women?” We could get sidetracked by a discussion if Les belles-souers has age-appropriate roles for college age actresses, as this is a multi-generational play. But between the absurdity of the boring task the women perform and the ending where the entire cast sings O Canada as stamps rain down on the tearful Germaine, why wouldn’t you want to introduce this play to your students?

However, I’d like to jump into these conversations about Montréal playwriting with his 1981 play Remember Me instead.

Set in the basement of the home of a French professor while he’s marking student papers, two ex-lovers eviscerate each other with their memories. In the short space of the play, we cover a lot of emotional terrain, as Luc has been tending his father’s bedside at the Notre Dame de la Merci.  I knew as soon as Luc mentions that his father has been staring out the window at Bordeaux prison, the building unfortunately placed next to the hospital, that I was immediately thrust into a world where the living characters were also trapped by their own prison walls.

Jean-Marc is a professor, Luc is an actor. These are professions that are instantly recognizable and universal. Jean-Marc and Luc, while they have moved on to other lovers, are both currently struggling with the fear of mediocrity. Jean-Marc’s youthful hope that his writing will change the world has now been replaced the self-realization that no one will remember him for his prose, but for his “disciples”. Luc is struggling with his recent rise to fame as a lisping character on television in a straight-romantic role and is being approached by fans who don’t want to see him as a gay man with the perfect classical French diction from his training at the National Theatre School. While Jean-Marc reminds him that no one has to know about his private life, Luc resents his television character persona and is looking forward to performing in an alumni production of de Musset’s Le Chandelier to regain a sense of integrity. Professionally, they are both performing on a larger stage: Jean-Marc as the “second-rate” teacher of the young and talented, and Luc frustrated states:

“I play a deathly boring character in a deathly boring series and people can’t get enough of it!”

I find these specific cultural references like a compass orienting me through the deeply personal memories Jean-Marc and Luc use as weapons against each other. As ex-lovers, the desire to return to their past relationship is strong, especially for Luc as he daily sits bedside by his dying father, yearning for a supportive partner to help him through it. And because Tremblay takes us down the into the depths of their personal fears and desires, there’s no doubt in my mind that even the most mundane phrase can be interpreted with a larger, metaphorical meaning about the Québécois experience and identity.

Perhaps thanks to decades of playwriting using realism and the actions of everyday life, we might overlook this two-character conversation and miss how it resonates poetically. I’m sure there’s also a historical context at work, perhaps the nationalistic energy that was driving Quebec during Tremblay’s early career as a dramatist had shifted by the early 1980s. To that end, I will soon introduce Alison Bowie, a Montréal-based dramaturg, who will be contributing to this blog and adding further perspectives.

So in a play about past regrets, memories, dying fathers, linguistic concerns over the French language, and fear of mediocrity, the past certainly smells better than the present. Although, it’s not happy nostalgia for the past either:

Jean-Marc: What really amazes me is that my cologne seems to remind you of nothing but happy memories.

Luc: On the contrary, it doesn’t just remind me of happy memories. I said that the past smelled good…which is not the same. The past in general.

Jean-Marc: And the present?

Luc: Not so fast! You’ll have to wait a bit. It’ll come soon enough.

—H.H., dramaturg

Prologue: An evening with Cirque Alfonse

Back in October 2014, when I first started to think about what conversations to have at the PACT pre-conference, I was invited by Patrick Leroux to see the Cirque Alfonse presentation at the NYU Skirball Center. I felt this would be a good way to enter the project. Short of flying to Montréal in advance of the conference, here was a Montréal performance on my doorstep. I am also aware in pursuing this exercise of reading plays by Montréal writers that Francophone theatre has a rich tradition in visual storytelling, something I will never be able intuit from the page. What could be better than the non-verbal, visual spectacle of circus? 

Prior to the performance, Concordia professor Patrick Leroux was invited to give a pre-show talk to contextualize the event for American audiences. Leroux explained that given Quebec’s distinctiveness linguistically, circus shouldn’t have been the defining feature of a society trying to position itself linguistically. Yet, one of Montréal’s greatest cultural exports has been the graduates of the National Circus School in Montréal who then perform in larger U.S. venues in Las Vegas. While the performers of Cirque Alfonse could have continued to work internationally, they decided to return home to Montréal and train at their homestead to create their own company of performers. The grandfather played the circus archetype of “the person to whom things happen to”, the wife was a dancer/singer/aerial artist, the husband and his friends performed the most aggressive stunts, and the young toddler ran briefly on stage to charm us with his adorable tricks imitating his parents.

This resonated with me immediately because as playwrights, we are all in search of an artistic home. A few seasons ago, Todd London, the former artistic director of New Dramatist, wrote passionately about this very issue on Howlround (as have many others since) and it’s certainly an important theme of his book An Ideal Theatre. I don’t know how many conversations I’ve personally had at new play development festivals about what dramaturgs and literary managers should be doing to change our current practices to better serve the writer.

Leroux then described how Continue reading

Where to Begin???

In Fall 2014, I asked Erin Hurley of McGill University and Patrick Leroux to send me a list of 30 plays by Montréal playwrights that would be represent their city and the theme of the ATHE conference. What they sent me was a list of almost 40 plays and I’m sure there’s some good ones that have been left off the list. I don’t know if they are all available in English or not, but here’s what I’m working from as this project begins. I’m in the process of tracking these plays down, thanks to Brian Drader, the Director of Playwriting at the National Theatre School of Canada and Simon Barry, Head Librarian of the National Theatre School. Everyone has been quick to respond to inquiries and I’m extremely grateful for these resources. Posts will start appearing in May 2015.

Prior to that, I had reached out to the Canadian Association for Theatre Research. After explaining to CATR what my goals were for this project, they directed me to Erin and Patrick. Many thanks to Erin & Patrick for all their help and guidance. As educators, hopefully this is a page you can bookmark as a resource for a listing of Montréal plays to share with your students. The list is currently in chronological order and I’ll make updates to the page as I work through this list with more information.

—HH, dramaturg

  • Gélinas, Gratien. Tit-Coq (1948)
  • Gauvreau, Claude. The Charge of the Expormidable Moose (1956)
  • Loranger, Françoise. Five More Minutes  (1966)
  • Loranger, Françoise. Playing Double (1967)
  • Tremblay, Michel. Les belles-soeurs (1968)
  • Garneau, Michel – Macbeth (a “translation-adaptation” of Shakespeare’s Macbeth). You could just read the MacDuff scene. (1978)
  • Fennario, David. Balconville (1980)
  • Tremblay, Michel. Remember Me (1981)
  • Bouchard, Michel-Marc. Lilies. (1985)
  • Laberge, Marie.  Before the War, down at L’Anse à Gilles (1986)
  • Chaurette, Normand. Fragments of a Farewell Letter Read by Geologists (1989)
  • Pelletier, Pol. Joy (1990)
  • Jovette Marchessault The Magnificent Voyage of Emily Carr (1990)
  • Fréchette, Carole. The Four Lives of Marie (1991)
  • Legault, Anne. A Winter’s Tale 70 (1991)
  • Tremblay, Larry – The Dragonfly of Chicoutimi (1993)
  • Ouellette, Michel – Frenchtown  (1993)
  • Lepage, Robert – Seven Streams of the River Ota (1994)
  • Archambault, François – Fast Lane  (1995)
  • Danis, Daniel – Song of the Say-Sayer (1996; 2003)
  • Fennario, David. Banana Boots (1998)
  • Parenteau-Lebeuf, Dominique. The Feminist’s Daughter. (1998/2006)
  • Gale, Lorena – Angélique (1999)
  • Fréchette, Carole. Elisa’s Skin (2000)
  • Brassard, Marie – Jimmy (2001)
  • Rideout, George. An Anglophone is Coming to Dinner (2001)
  • Evelyne de la Chenelière. Bashir Lazhar (2002)
  • Claude, Nathalie and Lin Snelling (text by Nancy Huston) – Limbes/Limbo (2004)
  • Mouawad, Wajdi – Scorched (2005)
  • Varma, Rahul. Bhopal (2005)
  • Evelyne de la Chenelière. Public disorder (2006)
  • Louise Dupré – Just Like Her (2006)
  • Lepage, Étienne – Howl Red (2008)
  • Choinière, Olivier. Bliss. Trad. Caryl Churchill (2010)
  • Berthiaume, Sarah – Yukonstyle (2010)
  • Bouchard, Michel-Marc. Christina, The Girl King (2011)
  • Soutar, Annabel – Sexy béton (2011)
  • Kemeid, Olivier – Me in the Century’s Red Ruins (2013)